SEATTLE--The case may seem closed. The US Environmental Protection Agency will decide on a final plan to clean up the Duwamish River sometime next year. But important health issues remain at stake, says researchers in the University of Washington School of Public Health, particularly for groups who live, work, and fish in the area. They, along with partners at Just Health Action and the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition/Technical Advisory Group, say a Duwamish Valley Revitalization Task Force is needed.
"This is a unique window of opportunity in the history of Seattle," said Dr. Bill Daniell, environmental health faculty in the UW School of Public Health. "A restored Duwamish River should become a regional symbol of pride and could serve as a foundation for visionary planning. Finding the best and sustainable balance between the needs of industry, Tribes, community, and the river ecosystem will be challenging. However, if we fail to take on this challenge, Seattle could lose incredible assets in the Duwamish Valley."
He says a coalition made up of a broad group of stakeholders and decision-makers is necessary to build an equitable and healthy future in the area.
Daniell led a team of researchers at the UW, Just Health Action, and the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition/Technical Advisory Group in a health impact assessment (HIA) of the EPA Proposed Plan for cleaning up the Lower Duwamish Waterway Superfund Site. The proposed cleanup would remove some contaminated sediments, monitor whether the rest of the river will recover naturally over time, and attempt to restrict fish consumption to prevent consuming toxic chemicals. However, resident fish and shellfish will still be unsafe for human consumption. The HIA focused on four vulnerable populations—local residents, affected Tribes, people who fish for food, and the Duwamish Valley workforce—and examined potential unintended or under-considered health impacts, desirable or undesirable. For example, potential health effects of community and industry gentrification, food insecurity, and disruption of cultural traditions.
In a recently released report, the authors stress that cleanup-related issues identified in the HIA should be addressed in context with broader existing problems faced by communities, Tribes and industry in the Duwamish Valley. The river cleanup could provide opportunities to confront and address these ongoing problems. It could also promote community and industry revitalization. However, broad-based, multiple-stakeholder, collaborative planning efforts will be essential to ensure sustainable and equitable solutions. A Duwamish Valley Revitalization Task Force, say the authors, could do just that. This recommendation and others are included in a final report that expands on initial findings reported last May.
The full final report, an executive summary, and supporting technical reports are available online at.
This HIA was supported by a grant from the Health Impact Project, a collaboration of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts; and also by the Rohm & Haas Professorship in Public Health Sciences, sponsored by the Rohm & Haas Company of Philadelphia. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Health Impact Project, The Pew Charitable Trusts, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, or the Rohm & Haas Company. The HIA examined EPA's Proposed Plan and did not examine harms or benefits that might result from alternate cleanup scenarios.
William (Bill) Daniell, UW School of Public Health: firstname.lastname@example.org, (206) 685-3160.
Linn Gould, Just Health Action: email@example.com, (206) 324-0297.
BJ Cummings, Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition/Technical Advisory Group: firstname.lastname@example.org, (206) 458-0284.
Alex Dery Snider, The Health Impact Project: email@example.com; (202) 540-6590.
Key findings and recommendations include:
Institutional Controls and Source Controls
- The necessary fishing advisories—which EPA calls institutional controls—will be more restrictive than elsewhere in Puget Sound, will probably be required for at least 40 years, and could persist in perpetuity.
- Fishing restrictions would be difficult to monitor and are not enforceable, and there is little evidence they are effective. These restrictions will disproportionately affect the health of populations dependent on seafood for cultural or food-security reasons.
- The limited scope of planning for institutional controls and source controls—sources of ongoing upstream and lateral contamination—makes it impossible to fully assess health impacts of the proposed cleanup. EPA and the responsible parties should develop a robust institutional control plan that protects the health of and meaningfully engages affected vulnerable populations, and that continually evaluates its effectiveness, for as long as institutional controls are in effect. EPA should consider direct and indirect costs.
Industry and Employment
- Employment supports health and well-being. Businesses in the Duwamish Valley already face gentrification and competitive pressures that threaten the future of family wage jobs. The cleanup might add to those pressures. However, businesses and employment also could benefit substantially, if the cleanup revitalizes industry and economy. This is most likely to happen if there are broad-based, collaborative planning efforts.
- The cleanup will generate millions of dollars in construction jobs and business revenue. Hiring local companies and workers will help keep the health benefits of cleanup jobs in Seattle and King County. Cleanup job training and placement assistance should be provided for local residents who are most impacted by the site.
Residents, Fishers, and Tribes: The Final Report reinforces findings and recommendations presented previously in an Advance Report:
- The cleanup will benefit local communities and could stimulate revitalization efforts. However, that also could aggravate ongoing gentrification and create or worsen problems for lower-income residents. This could be mitigated by planning and focused use of existing programs and resources that protects these residents from being displaced.
- Many people fish or collect shellfish as a food source from urban waters, including the Duwamish River. Discouraging people from fishing without providing practical and culturally appropriate alternatives can lead to food insecurity, malnutrition, and disruption of cultural and family traditions that support good health.
- Tribes define health and well-being more broadly than the conventional EPA biomedical definition of health. Restrictions on fishing and natural resources may harm Tribal members' cultural and spiritual health, and violate treaty rights, as well as lead to less healthy food substitutes. The report recommends collaborating with the Tribes to more fully address their health concerns, including restoring their treaty-guaranteed fishing resources and making institutional controls as temporary as possible.